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Tips for continuing to manage your mental health during this pandemic

'It can be helpful to plan ahead and think of what your boundaries are'
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
Even something as routine as grocery shopping requires vigilance now, making us more anxious than pre-COVID.

Navigating this pandemic and maintaining one's mental health is likely not easy for anyone.

There's job losses or layoffs for some, extra work for others; working from home, or working with new protective protocols in place. Kids have been home, or sort of back at school.

Not to mention financial, health, and family stresses due to the pandemic.

The Chief caught up with Quest University's Jacy L. Young, a psychologist and historian of psychology for a chat about how we are weathering this storm and strategies for coping.

Quest University's Jacy L. Young, a psychologist and historian of psychology
Quest University's Jacy L. Young, a psychologist and historian of psychology. - Courtesy Quest University's Jacy L. Young

What follows is a version of that conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is interesting is how people's reactions differ. While staying home at first made some people anxious, reopening is making others more anxious. Can you speak to the ways we are all reacting to the pandemic in our own way?

A: The specifics of what any one person is going through in their lives in relation to the pandemic are going to be different. I think being sympathetic to whatever particular state someone is at in any given moment is key for getting through this together. You can't assume that everyone around you is in the same headspace. Obviously, things are progressing differently too for different people.

Q: What are the range of emotions people are experiencing?

A: It can range from grief for things that people planned and then had to cancel due to the pandemic to anxiety and also just fatigue or exhaustion with the whole scenario and everything that goes along with it, in terms of restrictions on us for what is possible.

Any and all of this is valid. It is difficult to navigate a situation where there are things you have imagined for your future that can't happen now.

Q: It is all so uncertain. If we knew even the worst case of what is going to happen, at least we know. This, we don't really know what is next, right?

A: Absolutely. It is not as though certainty exists for anyone at this point. The uncertainty is across the board.

Living in that kind of uncertainty can be difficult, for sure, especially when it extends in time for an indefinite period.  There's no endpoint after which you can make concrete plans right now because it is so up in the air.

Q: Can you speak to how for some people the way they cope with all of this is by feeling unmotivated, or depressed, while others are hyperactive?

A: Yes, part of this goes back to distraction. There's great variety in ways folks cope, whether it is being busy or distracting yourself in other ways that may not be the most healthy way, long-term. There is distancing yourself from other people, emotionally, for example. It is a difficult thing to say what is a better approach than another. A lot of it comes down to reflecting on what is actually functional for you. Are you OK distancing from yourself emotionally, or is that having a negative impact on your life? Is being busy a really good thing for you or are you finding yourself really run down? It is finding that balance that works for you. That can be really challenging when there is so much to cope with in the grand scheme of things. It is about being able to pace yourself and be able to get through this long-term.

Q: On the flip side, I have also heard of some people who were very anxious before the pandemic, but have been able to thrive during this time. Are you hearing that as well?

A: Yes, I read a bit about this. Folks who were anxious at the outset, finding some comfort in the fact that everyone is now going to be in the same boat. We all have things to be anxious about right now and everyone is living with uncertainty, so it can be comforting for some to know that they aren't alone in this.

Often, suffering from something like anxiety can feel very isolating and now everyone is living it.

Q: We are all relatively anxious, but what should we be alert to that signals a need for more attention — for psychological help?

A: Look to the classic things psychologists always talk about like changes in appetite or sleep patterns, changes in mood. But a lot of this comes down to, do you feel like you are not able to continue in your life in a way that is functional for you, or do you find that your relationships are being negatively affected or do you feel like you are not able to cope?

Frankly, if you have the option of therapy available to you, I think all psychologists would say, take advantage of that. There are never any bad times to seek assistance. But if that is not available to you, finding ways to reach out to other people around you is important. One of the positive things to come out of this, is that there are all these other avenues to connect with people that don't involve the face-to-face encounters that have been typical of our lives. There's so much online stuff happening and that is maybe more acceptable and accessible for some people.

Q: Online has become so important to us all during this pandemic in terms of finding connection and information, but it is also a bit of a cesspool right now, so what advice do you have for navigating the internet when it can be so negative and scary?

A: Like most things in life, it can be beneficial to set some boundaries around how you spend time online — whether that is deciding you are only going to visit whatever your preferred social media site is for a set number of minutes per day, or deciding that you need a break from it for a set period. Your life doesn't have to exist online, even though in this moment it feels so much it does. Especially if you spend a lot of time online for work, being able to step back in the rest of your life can be a nice thing to do, even if it is just not staring at a screen for a few hours.

Q: Anything else about this topic you want to say?

A: I think that this pandemic is a marathon and not a sprint and this is good to keep in mind. It is really easy to get fatigued by the kind of vigilance that is required right now. For example, something as routine as grocery shopping — we all just took for granted before and now we are navigating through space in a way that we aren't used to. So pacing yourself and figuring out how to manage that fatigue is really valuable. It can be helpful to plan ahead and think of what your boundaries are, too.

If your boundary is that you don't want to go inside anyone else's house during this pandemic that is a really valid boundary to have. Outlining that boundary for yourself ahead of time and having a plan about what you will say and do in the moment when that arises is really helpful. What would you say if someone invites you inside? Practise that.

Being really concrete about these things can be helpful.

Q: Some people are struggling with the division of labour at home as one spouse or parent is working and another not. How can families, some of which are having an adult child or partner at home full-time for the first time, navigate the difficult and sensitive conversations around household chores?

A: There are a few things I would highlight when it comes to the division of labour at home. One is simply that this labour is still highly gendered, even when both partners are working, and initial data from this time of COVID indicates that this inequality has continued, if not worsened with a broader lack of childcare. It is important at any time, but particularly during these high-stress times, to communicate with the people in your household and recognize and offer appreciation for their contributions, whatever they may be. Communicating what you need from those around you is important. These days when we are in close quarters with others, it may be that you need alone time regularly. Communicating this kind of need is step one of figuring out how to build this into your life.